Thinking Out Loud

January 17, 2017

Christians and Reading

bookstore-signThis is part two of two articles on the general subject of reading and language, especially as it relates to the closing of bookstores in the wider market, and Christian bookstores in particular. Click here for part one.

Times are a lot tougher than in the past. Millennials struggle to find jobs and wealth creation is not as it was in the days of double-digit interest rates. The R-word — recession — is occasionally mentioned; some say we’re moving into it, some say we’re in it, some say we’re in recovery. Christian bookstores could have reason to claim immunity for the following reasons:

  1. In full out economic depression, people turn to religion.
  2. Also in depression, people turn to entertainment. While the book industry doesn’t have the same profile as movies, music and television, it is most definitely a subset of the entertainment industry.

So why have so many Christian bookstores closed? As with yesterday’s article, I haven’t taken the time to cite studies and statistics, but trust me on some things I can offer anecdotally.

First, we mentioned the various time pressures, distractions, and diminishing attention spans. I would argue that this has led to decline in the traditional devotional reading time. Bill Hybels has tried to give this new life by christening it with a new name, Chair Time. I wrote about that in February, 2016. Curling up with a good book and building a personal library are becoming rare activities. The only way to ensure people have contact with books at all is sometimes to have small groups or home groups which are essentially book study groups. That doesn’t always happen however. Many house groups use church-provided outlines or small study guides related to DVD curriculum they are watching. I do like the traditional book groups, especially in the sense in which they provide accountability (to cover the chapters for the next meeting.)

Second, I think the problem is self-perpetuating. Focus on the Family did some studies a decade ago on the spiritual influence the Dad has in the home, citing things like church attendance over time. I would contend that a generation is arising that has never seen their fathers sitting in a chair reading and when I say reading here, I would settle for the Sears catalog or Sports Illustrated. Many homes no longer receive a newspaper; and I understand that, you can read it online. But online reading is very personal. I could be doing anything online now: Checking the weather, balancing my bank account, posting a social media status update, watching YouTube videos, playing an online game, reading a serious article, or writing for my blog. But when someone sits in a chair reading, they are very obviously reading. Kids need to see this modeled for them as a life component every bit as normal as brushing your teeth.

Third, I believe that leadership is not setting the pace. In the retail store where I hang out, we see Sunday School teachers, we see worship team members, we see small group leaders. What we don’t see is elders, deacons, board members. Sometimes I will visit other churches and I see the names of these people printed in the church bulletin and I don’t recognize any of those names. We even had an instance of a pastor who we were told on good authority did not use his book allowance in ten years. (The man was incredibly arrogant and probably felt he knew all there was to know.) There are a few exceptions to this, but many people are chosen to serve their church in this capacity because they are business owners or executives who are successfully managing the company they work for and are considered wise enough to run the affairs of the church. Maybe they’re too busy to work on their own spiritual formation. That wasn’t the case with Stephen however. When The Twelve needed to create another tier of leadership to do the everyday running of things, they chose, “a man of faith, full of the Holy Spirit.” (The solution to this is pastors who buy the books in bulk they want their elders to study and then give them out as required reading.) 

Fourth, the stores need traffic generators; they require a constant hit bestseller to pay the bills. The Left Behind series accomplished this. The Shack brought people to the stores to both discuss and purchase the book. The Purpose Driven Life did the same. (I know there are people here who aren’t fans of these three examples, but they make the store sustainable for people looking for a classic Spurgeon commentary, or something by Tim Keller, or an apologetics resource.) Even on the non-book side of things the Gaither Gospel Series DVDs provided that traffic. These days, whenever something takes off in the Christian marketplace, Costco and Barnes and Noble are quick to jump into the game. Conversely, it doesn’t help when major Christian authors experience moral failure. The publishers occasionally offer products exclusively to the Christian market, but they only do this for specific chains (Mardel, Parable, Family Christian, etc.) not the independent stores who so desperately need this type of support. You have to be inside the stores to see other products you might wish to read or give away.

Finally, we’re not presently seeing a spiritual hunger. People are not desperate for God in North America and Western Europe right now. We hear reports from Africa or South America, though it’s hard to really quantify what is happening when there are often fringe movements or revivals based on extreme Charismatic doctrine or a mixture of Biblical Christianity and local animistic beliefs. In my early 20s, I remember hearing a Christian speaker say (quite tongue in cheek) “We don’t need the Holy Spirit, we have technology.” There is a sense in which this is true. It does remind me of the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, but you can put salt in his oats to make him thirsty.” We have to find ways to instill that hunger for reading in our local congregations. Pastor recommendations of books from the pulpit are the most significant factor driving customers to make purchases or place orders.  Another way the technology can be made to work is by providing chapter excerpts for people to sample; but publishers are very reluctant to do this, for reasons which escape me. 

In conclusion, all the factors mentioned in the previous article are impacting bookstores in general, these factors listed here are some things that concern me about the Christian market in particular.

not_enough_shelves

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January 16, 2017

The Erosion of Language as We Knew It

giant_library_scene

Yesterday I provided a kind of soft intro to the topic I want to look at today which bears on larger issues than just why bookstores are struggling.

There are some widely circulating statistics suggesting that in North America, western Europe and perhaps Australia/New Zealand as well, for the first time ever we’re seeing a generation with a lower life expectancy than their parents and grandparents faced; in other words, after better nutrition and medical knowledge have allowed us to live longer for years, suddenly it appears the numbers have peaked for both males and females.

On top of that, we’re also seeing a major decline in economic expectancy. Millennials are struggling to find jobs and the prospect of amassing enough wealth to secure their retirement years has somewhat vanished.

I would argue that parallel to all this we’re also seeing a major decline in literacy, or at least literacy as we have previously understood it or measured it.

There are a number of reasons for this, but all related to the personal computer revolution of the past 20 years. This isn’t a technical revolution, because the technology has been around much longer, and it’s not really a computer revolution for the same reason. Rather it’s the effect of personal computers being a part of every home, or even every individual. In the Fall of 2009, Finland became the first country to declare broadband internet access a legal right and by the summer of 2010, every person was to have access to a 1Mb connection.

I’ve written elsewhere about how computers and the internet have accelerated social change and how we’ve basically lived 4 decades worth of shifting paradigms in just 20 years. Today however we want to focus simply on language.

The simple answer to the question, “Why aren’t people reading books like they once did?” is easy.

  • We don’t have the time. We’re spending all our free time with our devices, or more specifically, screens.
    • The small screen in our pocket associated with our mobile phone
    • The medium screen be it a desktop, laptop or tablet
    • The giant screen in the living room be it Plasma, LED or LCD
  • We don’t have the money. We’re using up all our discretionary spending money on the same screens.
    • monthly phone bill and data plan overages
    • apps
    • cable or satellite television
    • home internet connection
    • streaming services
    • software bundles
    • accessories, extended warranties, virus protection, etc.

That is all fairly obvious.

We’re also seeing some other things at play at the same time.

  • Spell-check – You don’t really need to know how to spell a word anymore since the computer corrects it for you. Grammar-check is also slowly improving.
  • Texting – This is the reduction of the English language in the extreme.
  • Emojis – This is the reduction of written communication in the extreme.
  • Acronyms and Initialisms – I hope you’re taking this article seriously and not ROFL or LOL.

But there are also other factors beyond what’s happening online:

  • The end of cursive writing – They don’t teach cursive script in many (if not most) schools now. I would argue there’s something different about what we write when confined to individually printed letters. But this is a moot point when you think about…
  • The end of handwriting, period – If you’re of a certain age and are right-handed, and you look toward the end of your middle finger, there’s probably a callus there from many years of penmanship. Today, most kids spend far more hours keyboarding than handwriting.
  • The increasing emphasis on numeracy over literacy – Your ability to process numeric data is increasingly more vital than your way with words.
  • The diminished need to learn – It’s no longer necessary to know anything as long as you have mastered search and can locate the information needed. Unfortunately however there is a less sense as to the expected answer one is looking for, or a healthy skepticism as to whether or not the source is trustworthy or accurate.

The technology has also inflicted more damage to traditional reading:

  • Shortened attention spans – I don’t understand the psychological ramifications and I’m sure much ink has been given to this in professional journals and forums, but simply put, there’s something about the technology that has made us restless resulting in the often-seen response, “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read).
  • Increased distractions – One person well when they said something along these lines, ‘The problem with the internet is there are too many off-ramps.’
  • Dependency on rich text – I am referring here to our inability to follow a sustained argument through a lengthy paragraph. Rather we have become dependent on the use of italics, bold face, subheadings, bullet points, pull-quotes, and even (horrors!) underlining, color and enlarged fonts. (Yes, guilty as charged here.)

Next, there is the particular challenge of eBooks:

  • When they were first introduced, eBooks were offered at a substantial discount. The problem with this is that when you only spend 99-cents, or get the book for free, you don’t really have any investment in it. Many people would read a chapter or two, figure they got their money’s worth and never finish reading. This concerns me on several levels:
    • It strikes me as cheapening reading, diminishing the value of the author’s worth.
    • For some, it was all about the downloading experience; loading the device with titles for which the person had no intention of reading
    • It grossly inflated eBook sales which signaled a death of print which never happened.
    • The side effects of sore eyes and headaches caused by the devices turned some people away from reading.
    • It made it more difficult, if not impossible to loan a book to a friend.
    • When someone really loves a book, they will tell five friends, of which only one (at most) will be another eBook reader; the other four will try to get the book in print. But to love the book they have value it and finish reading it.
  • The side effect of cheap eBooks and the introduction of the Amazon discounting paradigm created a perfect storm, wherein print books were more widely discounted, which cheapened the value of printed books and also resulted in a climate where people were not finishing reading what they had started.

Finally, as noted above the technology afforded the possibility of online sales which bypass the traditional brick-and-mortar store.

  • The Amazon paradigm — the company itself and various copycats — created a situation whereby books were shipped directly to a customer’s door, thereby creating a situation where people were less likely to interact with physical books in a retail store environment. Choices are made from a store which really has no filters and where obscure publishers can buy placement in ways unknown before the Amazon revolution.
  • Sometimes customers got burned. The book didn’t materialize as what was suggested in online.
  • Other customers took to using the traditional bookstore as a showroom for the online seller. They would check it out in a local store, but purchase it cheaper from the online vendor. This was (and still is) a source of great frustration for bookstore owners, many of whom didn’t need another reason to throw in the towel.

…Well, that about covers it, right? Not quite. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the particular issues which face bookstores more familiar to some readers here, Christian bookstores; the topic we originally set out to answer.

Feel free to engage the comments section to suggest things I may have missed. These notes are from many years of doing this extemporaneously and I may have omitted some things. If the omission is serious, I may update the text.

Borders - The End is Near

 

June 24, 2016

Filters

winterglasses

When another volunteer decided to step down after many years, I offered to collect used books in our area for Christian Salvage Mission. I’m in the book business after all, so I believe in the power of Christian literature to transform lives. I haven’t been as successful at this as I could be however, because we now also have a Christian-operated thrift shop in town. Still, I try to inform customers of things we can take that the thrift store might not.

Sometimes the books that people drop off are excellent collections. I immediately recognize the authors or the publishers, even though the books may have sat on home library shelves since before I was born. Others are more recent; titles I would easily recommend.

But sometimes, in the middle of a great grouping of books there is the odd Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh Day Adventist title. (I recognize that some readers will sense my concern about the first two, but not necessarily the third.)

How did those books end up on these peoples’ shelves? Was a friend persistent? Or did the individuals not realize what they were getting into?

At this point, as a matter of full disclosure, I should point out that I have a copy of The Book of Mormon somewhere in my library. My parents got it in a hotel room while as a family we were in Salt Lake City. I have read some small sections of it. If I die tonight, and someone is going through my collection, they might well ask the questions I am asking here.

Generally, though, I worry that the average, church-going, pew-warming, tithe-giving Christian may not have sufficient filters with which to process the origins of some books, and thereby see the books through a more finely-tuned discernment lens. Do people check to see what the publisher imprint is? Which group claims copyright? Where follow-up pages (with phone numbers or websites) lead?

I should say that I have an unfair advantage. I’ve spent so much time in the industry that when I see Pacific Press®, Deseret Book Company, or a reference to the Watchtower Society, I immediately know who I’m dealing with.

But it’s not just the publisher imprint. Many of the books out there use a similar style of artwork; even the titles themselves sometimes are just a plain giveaway, especially the outreach materials which are produced for giveaway…

…At first, I had no specific conclusion to this, other than to say that this is a reality and people need to be more careful what they allow to come into their homes.

But then it occurred to me that while I didn’t write this with any agenda, Christian bookshops offered — and continue to offer — the type of vetting process that is needed. One pastor once told me, “You and your wife are gatekeepers for the people in our town.” That’s an honor. It’s also humbling. It’s a huge responsibility.

As long as the Christian bookstore owner, or manager, or buyer knows what they are doing, they can insure that only titles of the highest orthodoxy are presented for sale. Even if they don’t, the distribution networks for such stores simply don’t carry materials from marginal groups. And the Christian publishers generally don’t produce such products in the first place.

To the contrary, when you buy a book online just because the title looked interesting, or it was “recommended for you,” or because “other customers also purchased,” or maybe just because it was in the religion section and you liked the price; you really, really don’t always know what you’re getting into, unless you are savvy about publishing.

When a Christian bookstore closes, a local faith community loses a certain level of discernment; we lose some badly needed filtering.

 

 

May 5, 2016

Moving on to Bigger and Better Things

life's journey

As many of you know, I follow an unofficial and invisible ‘algorithm’ of sorts whereby I consistently return to same month posts from previous years to look for new material and new approaches to old topics.

Sometimes there are surprises: The particular item we quoted or linked to has been scrubbed from the site, or the entire blog or website no longer exists. I’ve never purged an article from any of my sites. If it was worth saying that day, I think it’s worth being able to go back and examine it again.

But often, it’s just a case of the writer stopped writing and rode off into the sunset.

The reasons vary, I suppose; but this one got to me:

This week I signed a publishing agreement with [name of publisher] to write my first book.

And with that, he was gone.

I recognize that you can only be active on so many fronts and perhaps if I had a book deal with that publisher — which came close once; they read my manuscript — I might reconsider the daily posts here. But then I keep thinking: It was probably their blog that got them the attention which led to the book deal, and now they’ve stopped doing the thing that got them where they are.

Some things we do in life are stepping stones. One thing leads to another. Once you’ve mastered the bicycle, you tend to leave the tricycle in the garage. I get that. But when it comes to sharing your thoughts in a forum like this one, I don’t see how you can simply not have anything more to say. What about topics that aren’t the central theme of the book you’re doing? Do you no longer have opinions on subjects that are currently on the minds of your (former) readers?

If you are a regular reader here, you know where this is going: Pastors who reach a degree of national prominence, get a major book contract, and step down from local church ministry. We saw this in the last decade with people like Rob Bell and Francis Chan.

I don’t think it’s right to sit back in my recliner and armchair quarterback other peoples’ lives. I would probably never claim to know the will of God for someone’s journey. I believe it highly presumptuous to critique the career changes of individuals I don’t know intimately.

However, in the realm of faith, I believe that the heart of ministry is local church ministry. Show me a published author who detaches himself (or herself) from the day-to-day stuff of the local congregation, and I’ll show you someone who will slowly lose the thing that got them their book contract. On a micro scale, show someone who is a pastor, but is never available at the door to shake hands after the service, or never does coffee shop appointments with parishioners, and I’ll show you a pastor whose sermons will become distanced from the very people he (or she) serves.

For those who are blessed with a deal from a major publisher: Don’t stop blogging. Don’t quit doing the everyday, run-of-the-mill thing that got you where you are. Your book won’t suffer; the non-contractual writing may in fact enhance it.

Not all bigger things are better things; they may just pay more bills.

October 17, 2015

Court Rules Google Can Continue Scanning Books

Filed under: books — Tags: , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:43 am

My Library

If Google Books isn’t a feature you use, this may not seem of great interest; but it affects authors and publishers greatly as well as having repercussions on what the word “copyright” truly means. All this in the same year that the U.S. courts re-defined what “marriage” really means. There’s a continuity to both decisions, don’t you think? But alas, I digress.

From BBC News:

Google can continue to scan millions of books for an online library without violating copyright laws, the US court of appeal ruled on Friday.

The [U.S. appeals] court rejected claims from a group of authors that Google Books violated their intellectual property rights.

Judges sided with an earlier ruling that the digital library was “fair use” and provided a public service…

…The Authors Guild and some individual writers filed the lawsuit in 2005, claiming the project infringed on copyright protection and authors’ ability to make money from their work.

Google Books is a project to scan and digitize millions of books to allow users to search and read excerpts from them.

Judge Pierre Leval wrote: “Google’s division of the page into tiny snippets is designed to show the searcher just enough context surrounding the searched term to help her evaluate whether the book falls within the scope of her interest (without revealing so much as to threaten the author’s copyright interests).”

…The Authors Guild plans to appeal to the US Supreme Court…

There’s more; continue reading at BBC

July 2, 2012

What’s a 250-Page Book Worth?

This week I got an email notification that a local author’s three books — two fiction and one non-fiction — are being offered as free downloads on different days this week. Having known writers who were a little distressed that their books were remaindered, and musicians who were little disappointed that their albums were deleted, I can’t imagine the motivation for broadcasting the fact that the product you labored so hard to create is being valued in economic terms at nil.

I can see how this author might believe that this is going to help him get his message out to a wider audience, or that it might raise his profile on the world stage, or that it might result in other books selling at closer tho his normal price. But on a transaction-by-transaction basis, it means his works are now owned by people who have no particular investment in them.

My thesis is that people are not reading. All our leisure time is now consumed by supporting our screen habits: The pocket screen, the Mac/PC/laptop screen, and the 42-inch plasma screen.

Furthermore all our leisure time money (dollars, pounds, etc.) are tied up in supporting all those same screen habits.

You may wish to argue that “sales” of eBooks are brisk; that this is why the brick-and-mortar bookstores are dying off, because people are downloading books electronically and watching/reading them on a variety of devices.

Let’s consider that possibility.

The greatest promotional vehicle for a book is word of mouth. When enough people have read a particular new release, they start talking about it and they tell their friends.  So all of this downloading ought to result in a groundswell of book interest, which might explain my author-friend’s excitement about the free download offer.

If in the highest categories, electronic book sales only represent 22% of the total number of copies sold — let’s be generous and say 1/4 — then those people are going to spread their passion to their friends:

  • one friend will buy the book electronically
  • three friends will buy the book in print

So you have a few books that go out at ridiculously low prices — in North America let’s say $5.99 or $2.99 or $0.00 — that spark the sale of many more both in Nook/Kindle editions and in print.

But it’s not happening. 

I think the reason is that people are downloading books but not finishing them. They’re using the low-priced and free titles to practice seeing what their electronic toys can do. Perhaps they are reading the introduction and the first chapter, and then, having spent nothing on them, they spend no time finishing them.

Now, let me be clear. I think some print prices are too high. I have continually challenged how the U.S. publishing industry, caught in several years of bad economic times — insisted on keeping the practice where first editions were published in hardcover.

Driven by greed, many author’s works which were pending were deleted and the authors released from their contracts in the years from 2008-2010, because the industry decided they would rather get nothing than sacrifice a publishing paradigm that keeps the books priced high.

The print equivalent of a $3.99 or $5.99 download is a $5.99 or $8.99 value edition; and the industry has no reserves about using this format for older titles, but isn’t interested in using similar tactics to introduce new authors and secure a future for their brand.

But in electronic reading, all bets are off. It’s like a new wave of marketers rushed to the head offices of the various publishers and presented an idea that would see people “adding to cart” all manner of titles and create the illusion of a vibrant and active electronic publishing sector.

Just two problems.

The books aren’t getting read.

The books are being devalued in the process.

May 13, 2012

The Bible: Still Both the All-Time and Current Bestseller

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:49 am

This is from Jared Fanning; found at Blogging Theologically and originally sourced at Justin Taylor whose version allows you to zoom in on the stats.

September 26, 2008

Where Christians Buy Books: My Reply To The Tim Challies Poll

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 3:55 pm

First here’s the results as of earlier this week:

Here’s my response:

The timing on this poll for Canadians is eerie. First we lost the largest bookstore chain in the country last November when Blessings Marketplace closed. Then a few months ago, we lost the largest individual store in the country when Christian Publications of Calgary, AB closed. Then at the end of August, CMC, the largest Christian music distributor in the country, ceased autonomous operations, with assets sold to David C. Cook.This week the largest Christian book wholesaler in Canada went into receivership, which also impacts the six retail stores they owned.

Obviously, the blog poll is reflecting a longstanding frustration that its dominantly Calvinist readership has with the average bookstore. Heck, I’m in the business myself, but I’m not a fan of Joel Osteen, either. Over the years we’ve seen a handful of stores which catered to purists who could not abide the status quo, the majority of which, as with the readers of the blog hosting this poll, were Calvinist.

But the poll, and the comments that introduce it, would almost seem to celebrate the joys of book buying online. Let me assure you that in terms of the bigger, long-term picture, there is no cause to celebrate.

Instead, I would suggest a lament. These stores were on the frontline of ministry in our local communities. They dealt with people who were seeking a church, seeking counsel, seeking truth, or simply didn’t know what they were seeking. They were there for believers who needed something yesterday, needed something you can’t buy online, or didn’t know what they needed. They promoted local Christian events, provided prizes and gifts for churches and schools, and presented book tables at all kinds of events in camps, conferences and concerts.

They helped launch the “industry” we have today at a time before Left Behind, before Veggie Tales, before Gaither Videos, before Purpose Driven Life and before The Shack. They stuck with slow-moving backlist product because they believed that someone, somewhere might have a need. They stayed open in lean years during which they were losing money. They served customers at a time when it was about the quality of the product, the scriptural integrity of the product, the owners’ familiarity with the doctrine of the product; and not about the price of the book. In fact, when you make it about the price, you totally diminish the product. An author who brings insight into something that you never noticed before is giving you something that is priceless.

Retail store clerks taking the time to walk someone through an informed purchase of a Bible translation spend more customer service time than at the average shoe store, and require more technical knowledge than at the average consumer electronics store. You simply don’t get that online. The responders to this poll are the exception, not the rule, because they know exactly what books they want to buy before they order. Bloggers know exactly what they want to buy. But the average parishioner wants some help, wants to browse the physical book, and wants to talk to someone who acts as both bartender (listening to their story) and pharmacist (recommending the product that suits best and explaining its use.)

Longer term considerations factored in, this is a sad time for Christian publishing in Canada and the U.S. and the U.K..

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original article on Tim’s blog

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